A year ago The Guardian reported the findings of one Roger Pertwee, professor of neuropharmacology at Aberdeen University. He was calling for the legalisation of cannabis under licence for adults over 21. In support of him, the rather appealingly named Professor David Nutt, sacked chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misue of Drugs, said: As cannabis is clearly less harmful than alcohol, criminalisation of people who prefer this drug is illogical and unjust. We need a new regulatory approach to cannabis. The Dutch coffee-shop model is one that has been proven to work but some of Professor Pertwee's new suggestions may well have extra benefits and should be actively debated.
Those who have worked energetically for greater leniency in the fraught issue of the status of narcotics within the law are likely to be greatly encouraged by these robust statements, seeing in them a further step towards at least the partial legalisation of proscribed drugs. Correspondingly, those for whom illegal drug usage represents a fundamental attack on the very fabric of society itself will be dismayed.
As for the substance of the debate itself, both sides have concentrated almost entirely on issues such as long-term health risks, links between cannabis and other drugs and the nature of dependency. The proponents of liberalisation are satisfied that nearly all available data provides no indication of there being any significant cause for concern in relation to these and kindred issues. And their case is the more powerful in that, after several decades of agitation, it has gathered up not only the usual Liberal and Labour suspects but also a considerable number of resolute Conservatives.
However, for many of the old guard in the pro-legalisation camp – those whose younger years were passed within a fug of heavy rock and dope smoke - an interesting dilemma has emerged. Many of them must have assumed, in a bleary sort of way, that significant movements towards legalisation could only take place within an enlightened and progressive political, cultural and social climate. The enemy, after all, was ever to be located within the forces of reaction, the suits, the faceless institutionalists. The legalisation of cannabis would be part of a broader wave of long-awaited changes including, maybe, mass recycling projects, free public transport, crèches as standard provision in all workplaces.
But now confusion reigns: this bold step forward has been taken by ostensibly reactionary, suit-wearing, traditional establishment figures. So, in event of further movement down the path towards the ultimate legalisation of cannabis, how does the grizzled dope-for-all pioneer imagine the coordination and regulation of the processing and marketing of legal cannabis would now take place? Maybe the government will make the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responsible for the setting up of regulated plantations on which legal cannabis will be grown and harvested by hitherto impoverished farmers. At a stroke the ongoing depression in agriculture will be lifted and the responsible management of the production and supply of cannabis will be clearly established.
Not, in fact, the most likely route at all. The reality is that, as we speak, conscience-free chemists are working on the blending, kids in Ralph Lauren shirts are working on the marketing, designers in Paul Smith suits are working on the packaging and executives in very high buildings with names like British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco and Phillip Morris above the big glass doors are guess-timating the enormous profits that they’re going to realise from the sales of the first legal spliffs.
So what does a poor boy do if he believes fiercely in the right of every citizen to have a bit of blow now and then? Grow his own? Not if a crucial part of the deal is that only the properly constituted companies are permitted the right to grow and market weed. And who’s going to care from whence comes this great benefice? Not the 50% of 15-year-olds who have, at the very least, sampled a joint at a party or behind the proverbial bike sheds. Not the Thames-side futures broker who keeps a stash in the penthouse. And not the tobacco companies and their shareholders who, in a time of dire crisis, see a way out of the gloom.
What doesn’t kill a government makes it strong. Ideas and notions once revolutionary are always assimilated eventually by the great, sprawling, mutating institution that we are pleased to call the democratic state. Adopted, adapted, digested and then regurgitated as implemented policy. Something to puff on ruminatively while the debate retains its potency…